Transnistria – Celebrating Independence Day in Country That Doesn’t Exist, Again
Against a backdrop of over-tourism throughout Europe, these days there’s a growing number of contrarian tourists. Offbeat travellers, pilgrims of chance, heading East and embarking on unmarked and unpopular journeys through lesser-known lands. Seeking the bleakest of winters and the greyest of cities, dreaming of being surrounded by beautifully expressionless women listening to 1980’s pop music being played through tinny mobile-phone speakers, and intimidating mafia-esque men drinking leviathan quantities of alcohol, for some, the deepest crevices of post-Soviet Eastern Europe are the unexpected promised lands of tourism.
Several post-Soviet countries, mostly in Europe, are mostly untravelled and mostly unheard of. Personally, I’m yet to be mugged in Abkhazia, experience the organised crime utopia of South Ossetia, and I’m not banned from Azerbaijan for entering the Republic of Artsakh. However, for the third time in the last few years I’ve ended up in the city of Tiraspol, Transnistria – to celebrate a unique Independence Day, in the country that doesn’t really exist.
Truly, Transnistria is peak Eastern Europe. On an early September morning each year in Tiraspol, the small capital city awakes. Locals leave their Soviet-era apartment blocks to watch a fairly restrained and sombre military parade celebrating national independence. Soon after, the streets overflow with traditional peasant clothing, high-heels, and bootleg sportswear. People begin dancing in circles to madly dizzying regional folk music, drinking locally produced Vodka and “Cognac”, eating huge chunks of grilled BBQ meats and organic small-batch fresh produce. It’s unrelentingly, and unapologetically, a real life stereotype.
Children play with guns, ride donkeys, and clamber over missile launchers and assorted military hardware. From one street to the next, Tiraspol is filled with live entertainment and pop-up displays of locally produced small appliances, fur coats, portable electricity generators, and fancy bedding. Hand-made nationalistic trinkets share the limelight with loaves of bread decorated with the symbols of communism.
Just to put an exclamation point on the post-Soviet Eastern European cliche, Russian flags are flying everywhere. The national colours and emblems of both Russia and the USSR can be seen throughout Tiraspol on banners and clothing. Locals drop Transnistrian Rubles on “I Love Russia” pins, and proudly wear pro-Russia, pro-USSR, and pro-Putin t-shirts. Even the national crest of Transnistria is a colourful throwback to the times of the Soviet Union, featuring a red star, hammer and sickle, corn cobs, grapes, and stalks of wheat, placed with an eye to the old-school communist design language around a rising sun.
Indeed, Transnistria is absolutely enamoured with Russia. Their shared recent history continues to bind these nations together, and the events that motivated this devotion are mostly remembered with gratitude. The 20th century in this region was genuinely complicated, even an abbreviated list of major events and turning points would be too extensive and well beyond the scope of this page, but I will do my best to simply explain what has lead to the creation of Transnistria.
Geographically squeezed in between Ukraine and Moldova, Transnistria is over four-thousand square kilometers of land-locked territory, located on the very edges of Eastern Europe. Small enough to cross East-to-West in an hour, but large enough North-to-South to hold half-a-million people living in more than a hundred cities, towns and other settlements.
Sharing no borders with Russia itself, during the time of the Soviet Union Transnistria was part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the impending collapse of the USSR, this entire region became the independent nation of Moldova – encompassing all of Transnistria.
Linguistically and ethnically, the make-up of Transnistria differed significantly from the rest of Moldova. Even prior to the Soviet dissolution, tensions had been rising. In one particularly volatile policy, the Moldovan government officially removed Russian as a state language, the commonly accepted lingua franco of Transnistria, along with the Cyrillic alphabet. More extreme proposals were put forth by various organisations in Moldova, including a radical plan to completely expel all ethnic Russians and Ukrainians from the lands of Transnistria.
With concerns about increased efforts to marginalise, activists in Transnistria created a separatist movement. Unwilling to be part of an independent Moldova, on September the 2nd 1990 Transnistria declared their own independence. Relations soured further, and limited armed clashes soon developed into a full-scale war between pro-Moldova and pro-Transnistria groups.
Volunteers and armed forces from Transnistria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia were involved in the conflict. Hundreds of lives were lost, on both sides. Notable was the significant Russian military involvement – officially with a neutral stance – but crucial to the outcome of the war.
By the middle of 1992, a ceasefire agreement was signed. Since that time peace has indeed been held – with the assistance of a small Russian peacekeeping force based in a demilitarised zone between Moldova and Transnistria. In 2019, the conflict remains unresolved, one of a small number of ongoing post-Soviet “frozen conflicts”.
Moldova has completely lost (or abandoned) all effective control over the breakaway region but officially continues to claim Transnistria as part of their own nation. In reality, in most regards Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) may now be considered a de-facto independent state. With it’s own Parliament, army, air force, currency, postage stamps, flag, national anthem, and passports (the travel document is recognised by only three other also unrecognised post-Soviet territories), Transnistria has most of what defines an independent country. There is really only one major omission – no international recognition.
Almost three decades after declaring independence, not a single member of the United Nations recognises the existence of Transnistria. However, in spite of remaining unrecognised by any other country, including Russia, this year Transnistria celebrated annual Independence Day number twenty-eight.
People here are friendly and welcoming towards the small number of foreign tourists who choose to visit Transnistria on Independence Day. Invitations to eat and drink are common. Smiling faces and outstretched hands will pull you into communal dancing circles, and you’ll get to chat with pretty much anyone that can speak your language. One older gentleman gifted our small group a large bottle of Vodka, obviously proud and a little bit excited to be seeing foreign tourists in his city (pre-midday, the gift was conditional upon being immediately opened and consumed, and not wishing to offend we happily obliged).
Although Tiraspol locals are often fascinated by the unfamiliarity of tourists in their city, there’s a certain degree of confusion as to why anyone would actually visit. It’s obvious to anyone with a modicum of objectivity that Transnistria isn’t for everyone.
Your travel insurance probably isn’t valid here. There’s zero consular representation. You’ll need to bring a wad of Euro or US dollars to exchange for plastic coins of an unrecognised currency, your credit cards won’t work, and after three visits I’m unable to find consistent opinions on the safety of the local tap water.
There are more formidable issues for tourists. Back in 2013, I had to negotiate in broken Russian for thirty minutes with two border agents who weren’t going to let me leave Transnistria until I paid a significant bribe. In 2017 and 2018, upon entering Moldova-proper, I needed to visit the government department that deals with refugees before I was allowed to leave Moldova. In their judgement I’d entered the country across a border they don’t recognise, and I needed to explain my actions or apply for asylum status.
Certainly, there are some issues with entering Transnistria, and with leaving too. But these par-for-the-course problems are improving with time, and largely dependent upon which border crossings you choose. In my opinion, any issues are worth the effort.
Sure, when selecting holiday destinations, most travellers people prefer somewhere a little less adventurous. These days, short Thai Beach vacations, punishing jet-ski’s and railing bath-salts, seem to be much more popular with the kids. I get it. And honestly, on most days of the year, Transnistria is pretty boring, little more than a sleepy version of old-Russia, an unpopular stopover for socially-awkward Soviet-o-philes, collecting a few stories and a rare set of who-cares passport stamps before returning to the most boring jobs in the world back in Birmingham.
However, on Independence Day, walking around the city, passing by one Lenin statue after another, you’ve genuinely exited the rest of the world and entered a fantastical cold-war-era time-warp. It’s undeniably surreal, so much fun, one of the worlds unique travel experiences, and I’ll be back again this September.
PS, for the record, this year we were the first people in history to catch an Uber to the borders of Transnistria. Big hello to the three lovely ladies I shared the ride with!
PPS, apologies to my regular readers for the lack of updates. Since my last post I’ve been guiding and organising MANY Iran tours, working with other tour organisations, and travelling through Italy, Ukraine, Iran, Oman, and I’m currently writing this from Dhaka, Bangladesh. It really means a lot to me that you continue to follow my journey, and I hope we can meet in person one day.
This page is tagged Bath Salts, Eastern Europe, Tiraspol, Transnistria